Eighty-year-old J. D. (Jack) Phillips popped a red More cigarette in his mouth as he ambled slowly out into the pasture where his prized Texas longhorn steer grazed on lush green grass.
“Some longhorn steer are gentle; some are mean as hell,” explained Phillips, staring at 12-year-old Big Red, a 2,000-pound steer with huge sweeping horns. “Big Red looks mean, but we get along.”
The 5-foot-6, 140-pound Phillips knows as much about the breed as any man alive. His family has run Texas longhorn cattle since the 1820s, when Texas was first settled by non-Indians.
The oldest breed of cattle on the North American continent, the Texas longhorn--like the Alamo --is symbolic of the Lone Star State.
“When you say longhorn, you’re talkin’ Texas,” said Phillips. “That’s what the breed is all about--hardy survivors, adaptable to everything an animal can stand, blazing heat, unbearable humidity, cold, freezing rain and winter blizzards.”
T. D. Kelsey’s “Texas Gold,” one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world, pays homage to the longhorn. Each of the seven animals has a brand representing the seven families who owned pure-bred Texas longhorns in 1925, when the breed was on the verge of extinction. (Phillips’ brand, a connected J&P;, is one of the seven brands on the statue. He and his father owned about 30 of the pure-bred longhorns at that time.)
In 1925, to make sure the legendary breed didn’t vanish, the U.S. Forest Service gathered 30 of the animals and placed them on the Wichita Mountains National Wild Life Refuge in Oklahoma. Within a few years the federal herd increased to 300 and became the foundation stock for the 125,000 registered Texas longhorn scattered across the country today. Half are still in Texas.
Phillips may be long in years but there’s no slowing him down. He works six, sometimes seven days a week, riding 20 miles a day and more on his 13,000-acre ranch.
“I’d be riding with a bunch today if I wasn’t talkin’ to you,” he said with a laugh, the ever-present red cigarette drooping from his mouth.
He and his wife of 58 years, Carolyn, 78, have three children, six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. The walls of their huge living room are covered with two dozen skulls and horns of longhorn bulls, cows and steers, a tribute to the animals they’ve loved. More skulls are found on the front porch.
“Christopher Columbus introduced longhorn cattle to the New World, dropping them off on Santo Domingo Island on his second voyage to the West Indies in 1493. In 1521, the cattle were brought to Mexico from Santo Domingo, and in 1690 the first herd of 200 head of longhorns were driven north to present-day Texas,” said Phillips.
After the Civil War, 10 million longhorns were trailed north from Texas. “Longhorns put Texas on the map,” said the rancher. “When I was a child this was all open range. There was nothing but longhorns in this country. My father had 4,000 in the early days.”
Phillips runs 180 longhorns, 100 Brahma and 600 cross-breed on his Battle Island ranch, named for a famous mid-1800s duel that took place on the property. He keeps only about a dozen longhorn.
“There is no breeding value for the old ones with the big horns, just historical, colorful and nostalgic value. People like to have them around to show. They’re a conversation piece. I’d expect there’s no more than 300 or 400 of the old long-horned steers in the U.S.”
President Reagan was given one for his California ranch, added Phillips, and the University of Texas at Austin has one as a mascot.
One of the founders in 1964 of the 3,000-member Texas Longhorn Breeders Assn. of America, Phillips served as the association’s third president and has never missed an annual convention.